Sensing increased activity by the Gulf Blockading Squadron, Confederate Brigadier General David Twiggs sought to garrison Ship Island, giving the Confederacy a defensive position to protect not only the Mississippi Coast but also New Orleans and Mobile. In early July 1861, Confederate troops on the island clashed with the USS Massachusetts.
Since the secession of Mississippi, manning Ship Island had been an issue. Some saw the island of important strategic significance while others felt it had no military value. The unnamed fort wasn’t completed and conditions on the island could be difficult at best. With little to no trees, temperatures and humidity on Ship Island could become unbearable.
What structures that were on the island had been burned in May by the command of Brigadier General William Hardee, Confederate commander at Mobile. Any force garrisoning Ship Island would live in tents on the sand.
Twiggs had the soldiers to garrison Ship Island but lacked the proper guns for its defense. Some heavy guns were at the Confederate Navy Yard in New Orleans. Some of these guns were ordered to be placed on Ship Island.
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On July 6, 1861, Captain Edward Higgins took command of the CSS Oregon and CSS Swain, leaving New Orleans in search of the USS Massachusetts. Since joining the Gulf Blockading Squadron, the Massachusetts had been a nuisance for Confederate blockade runners. Higgins hoped to find the Massachusetts somewhere in the Mississippi Sound.
If the Massachusetts could not be found, Higgins planned to place guns and men on Ship Island, creating a small garrison force comprised of 55 Confederate marines and 30 members of the 4th Louisiana Infantry.
On July 8, 1861, pickets on Ship Island spotted the sails of a vessel anchored in the Mississippi Sound. The following day, the crew of the Massachusetts confirmed Confederate occupation of Ship Island, identifying four gun emplacements under construction and 39 tents on the island.
Melancton Smith, commanding the Massachusetts sailed for the island but discovered his ship’s guns could not reach the island. Meanwhile, Confederate guns on Ship Island could reach the Massachusetts. Gun crews on the Massachusetts and Ship Island traded shots with neither causing damage. The Massachusetts eventually withdrew to Chandeleur Island.
On July 13, 1861, the Massachusetts returned to Ship Island exchanging shots with Confederate vessels Oregon and Arrow. The two Confederate vessels tried to lure the Massachusetts within range of the guns of Ship Island but Smith refused to take the bait.
Although Ship Island was now manned by Confederate troops, Twiggs worried that defense would not succeed unless light-draft vessels could be used in concert with the guns on Ship Island. Without this, Twiggs deemed holding Ship Island for a prolonged period difficult.